JOLO, Philippines: A Jordanian TV reporter on Thursday described escaping captivity by militants in the southern Philippine jungle following an 18-month kidnap ordeal that saw him lose a third of his body weight.
Looking gaunt and haggard, with his cheeks hollowed out, Bakr Atyani said from hospital that he sneaked out after his guards from the kidnap-for-ransom Abu Sayyaf group went to get supplies.
“It was not my first time to attempt escape, I did it twice before. I failed,” Atyani told ANC Television, sporting a beard grown in captivity and a baseball cap atop his long hair.
“This time, they were really too busy, and I noticed that before sunset… they (went) to the nearby town market (and) a good number of them were out of the place and there was no security,” the Al-Arabiya reporter said.
He said in recent days his captors had grown lax, posting only a token presence outside a tiny hut that served as his quarters at night.
Atyani said over time he managed to get a general idea of where he was being held, and what direction to take should he escape.
Police said they found Atyani Wednesday evening wandering near a jungle-clad area on the restive island of Jolo.
“After we confirmed his identity we took him to a hospital. He was apprehensive at first, but we introduced ourselves as police and (Atyani) lightened up when he realized he was safe,” provincial police spokesman Chief Inspector Chris Gutierrez said.
He said Atyani was being treated in the Jolo hospital for elevated blood pressure, while undergoing debriefing by police investigators.
“He had lost a lot of weight, from his weight of about 85 kilos (187 pounds) before he was taken to 55 kilos (121 pounds),” Gutierrez said.
The circumstances surrounding Atyani’s freedom remained murky, and Gutierrez could not say categorically whether he had escaped from his captors or was freed.
Dubai-based broadcaster Al-Arabiya said in a statement Wednesday that Atyani was handed over to Filipino authorities by the kidnappers, but the account from police and Atyani himself contradicted that.
“We are keeping him here for the meantime while he is recovering and while he is being debriefed,” Gutierrez said.
Previous kidnapping cases involving the Abu Sayyaf have involved large ransom payoffs, which local authorities euphemistically call payments for “board and lodging.”
Military and police sources had previously said the Abu Sayyaf had demanded millions in dollars in ransom, though neither Atyani’s family nor employer would confirm this.
Atyani is the Southeast Asia bureau chief of the Al-Arabiya News Network. The veteran journalist gained fame for interviewing Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
He hired two Filipino crew members and went to Jolo in June last year to interview Abu Sayyaf leaders, but they were instead taken hostage.
The Filipinos were freed in February this year, and said no money had changed hands. They said they were separated from the Jordanian five days into their captivity.
Jolo, more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of Manila, is a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, which has been blamed for the country’s worst terror attacks, including bombings and abductions of foreigners and missionaries.
US special forces have been rotating through Jolo and other parts of the southern Philippines for more than a decade to train local troops battling the group, which is on Washington’s list of “foreign terrorist organizations.”
The Philippine authorities say Abu Sayyaf gunmen are believed still to hold a number of foreign as well as Filipino hostages, including two European birdwatchers and a Japanese treasure hunter.
In March, the gunmen freed Australian Warren Rodwell from 15 months in captivity. Philippine negotiators said his family had paid a $100,000 ransom.
Rodwell was seized in December 2011, and his captors had initially demanded $2 million for his safe release.